Duryea Brothers Won First American Car Race On Thanksgiving Day

It was postponed for months, allowing entrants more time to prepare their horseless carriages. When the day of the first American car race finally arrived on Thanksgiving Day November 28, 1895, it came with a brutal blizzard that knocked most drivers off the road before they ever started.

The first American car race was officially known as the Chicago Times-Herald Race of 1895. Multiple daily newspapers were competing for readers to survive in a town dominated by the Daily Tribune. The struggling Chicago Times merged with the Chicago Herald. H.H. Kohlsaat, publisher of the newly merged paper devised the race between “self-propelling road carriages” (a.k.a. horseless carriages) to boost readership.

Kohlsaat was inspired by the world’s first car race sponsored by Le Petit Journal. The Paris-Rouen race had boosted the publication’s readership and spurred the automotive industry in Europe. Following in French tire tracks the Chicago Times-Herald offered a sizable total purse of $5,000 for winners of the “moto-cycle” race. Response to the challenge made in July was overwhelming.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Never mind that most of the cars had yet to be built for a race slated in late summer. The race was changed to November 2nd, allowing inventors to complete their vehicles.

Even if they were ready, the roads between Chicago and Milwaukee were not. There was no single road connecting the two cities, as most trade was still done by railroad or ship. Even in August, the best of the roads were rough and muddy.

Race organizers changed the route to a 54-mile round trip between what had been the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 Columbian Exposition and a lakefront spot in northern Evanston.

By November 2nd, only a few entrants could make it to Chicago. Some were not yet finished. Others had trouble transporting their entries. Still others were stopped en route thanks to an ordinance that disallowed self-propelled vehicles on the streets. Some entrants had to hire teams of horses to haul them to the start line.

Once again the date of the first American car race was changed. This time set for Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1895.

The day of the race brought temperatures around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, six inches of snow, drifts up to 24 inches and winds up to 60 miles per hour in some places. Out of nearly eighty entrants, only 11 were willing to brave the weather. Of those 11, only six made it to the starting line.

Karl Benz of Germany built three of them. In 1885, he had patented his Motorwagen, the first gasoline fueled internal combustion engine. Macy’s sponsored one of the Benz cars to get publicity for the cars they had started to sell. De La Vergne Refrigeration of New York City sponsored another Benz. There were also two electric cars with storage batteries. Finally, there was the Duryea Motor Wagon Company’s entry. It was the only American made gasoline car to start.

The Duryea Brother’s Car Rumbled At The Start Line

Although Henry Ford is often credited for the development of the first car in America, it was the Duryea brothers—Charles and Frank—who built the first gasoline-powered horseless carriage in 1893. They were originally bicycle mechanics working out of their garage in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Charles, born in 1861, had already made a name for himself with his unusual “sylph” bicycle when younger brother Frank, born in 1869, joined him. Together they studied internal combustion engines at the public library. Charles drew the first designs, but it was Frank who spent long hours making those designs work. In 1893, Frank drove the first Duryea automobile to great fanfare.

Sadly, the brothers grappled with sibling rivalry throughout their lives. Charles claimed that he completed the first model to an operable state, while Frank said he perfected the engine and transmission in his brother’s absence. Whichever truth was real, Frank drove the car down the streets of Springfield on September 22, 1893 to great fanfare. The brother’s combined efforts produced amazing results.

The First American Car Race: Checker or Wrecker!

Given the road conditions, the results of the race were nearly predictable. Each of the six cars had a driver and an umpire to make sure the driver did not cheat. From the time the word “go” was called at around 9 a.m., the race was a comedy of errors.

  • The electric cars failed quickly when the freezing temperatures drained their storage batteries
  • Cars slid badly in the busy part of downtown Chicago with roads covered in ruts and chunks of snow
  • One car dropped out after an accident with a horse
  • A steep grade eliminated another vehicle that could not climb it in the slippery conditions.
  • Duryea hit a rut that caused his tiller to break; he had to find a blacksmith for emergency repairs
  • Duryea had to dash into a pharmacy to purchase small quantities of gasoline, which was sold as a cleaning product at the time.
  • The driver of the Mueller Benz car passed out part of the time and his umpire assumed driving duties. Some say it was due to the freezing temperatures while others say it was the excitement.

And The Winner Is…

Seven hours and fifty-three minutes of running time (ten hours and twenty-three minutes total time) later, Frank Duryea and his umpire finally crossed the finish line first. The time was 7:18 p.m. Their average speed during the grueling course was roughly seven miles per hour. The crowd was mostly dispersed by then, although people from the Duryea Company remained to greet Frank.

The Mueller Benz crossed the finish line an hour and a half later.  No other vehicles completed the race.

The Chicago Times-Herald won national publicity and a place in history—along with a spike in readership. Unfortunately, the first American car race was ultimately not enough to keep it alive.

After the race, the demand for the Duryea Motor Wagon soared. In 1896, the Duryea Brothers produced 13 cars. All were made by hand in their garage at 47 Taylor Street. The Duryea became the first commercially produced vehicle in the United States.

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